Existo (1999) poster

Existo (1999)


USA. 1999.


Director – Coke Sams, Screenplay – Coke Sams & Bruce Arntson, Producers – Clarke Gallivan & Peter Kurland, Photography – Jim May, Music/Songs – Bruce Arntson, Makeup Effects – Dave Gullberg, Production Design – Rudy Guidara. Production Company – Hometown Productions.


Bruce Arntson (Existo), Jackie Welch (Maxine), Jenny Littleton (Penelope), Mark Cabus (Ruben), Gailard Sartain (Colette Wachuwill), Michael Montgomery (Dr Arnold Glasscock), Jim Varney (Marcel)


The USA has been taken over by fundamentalist Christians. A resistance movement is led by the singer Existo whose lyrics and performances are the rallying cry to all the repressed and outlawed artists, leftists, New Agers, conservationists and critical theorists everywhere. Under his banner, they conduct a daring series of terroristic art crimes that send the fundamentalist establishment reeling. However, the turncoat Ruben conspires to set Existo up with the beautiful and innocent Penelope who, as intended, soon has Existo walking around with his tongue hanging out and willing to make a public atonement of his revolutionary activities.

Existo is a film that developed a cult reputation almost from the time it premiered (although for all that has been largely forgotten since). It has wilfully been construed as a genre-bending effort. The mind boggles at the number of disparate genres Existo ends up colluding and outrightly bending – it is a musical, a dystopian science-fiction film and has a clearly Marxist manifesto. And it was made in Nashville, no less! – not exactly a place renowned as a hotbed of Marxist politics and/or musical drag acts.

Existo is a film with a sharp political agenda. That alone is something that makes it welcome – having been made independently, it is without the usual watered-down-so-as-not-to-offend-Middle-America political line that comes after a product is fed through the studio system. The film is unique in that most of its political debate is relayed in song. For nearly half the film, the songs seem to be all it has to offer with nothing ever really coalescing into any semblance of a plot. (Although when it does pick up a plot of sorts in the last half, it proves very funny). That said, the songs are so cleverly entertaining this doesn’t matter too much. As a songwriter, Bruce Arntson has some marvellous turns of lyrical phrase (he reminds of a more agit-prop version of the darkly acerbic Roger Waters). The film is almost worth listening to for the lyrics alone.

Existo is a film that manages to both have its cake and eat it too in having a political point to make but not take it too seriously either. Notedly the suppressed art movement is something that encompasses everything from artists to feminists and gay rights activists, environmentalists, drag acts and French critical deconstruction theorists. There is one hilarious scene with the art activists preparing to go out into battle – “Now just hug those trees then get out of there – you don’t have time to worry about feelings” or the panicked attempts to salvage the art attack that goes wrong – “We need a concept, we need a concept.”

Performance at the revolutionary den in Existo (1999)
Performance at the revolutionary den

On the downside, being a low-budget production, the film never has the resources to take the revolution out beyond the revolutionary den – more than half the film’s action takes place in a single nightclub setting with all the art crimes only ever being described. (Nevertheless, Coke Sams does compensate by describing the action in a series of hilarious mock deadpan tv newscaster soundbites – Arntson and Sams’s parody of fundamentalist doubletalk is hilariously spot-on).

It is also a film that frequently gets far too silly for itself. There is a bizarre everything-but-the-kitchen-sink climactic number that has Bruce Arntson pogoing about on a giant-size plastic penis, drag performers, a back-up chorus cleaning toilets as they sing and a hypocritical senator who is transformed into a pig in the midst of the number.

For a low-budget production, Existo manages to obtain some highly professional performances from the entire cast. It even manages to reign in performances from well-known name actors like Jim Varney (best known for the Ernest movies, some of which Coke Sams had co-written and Bruce Arntson composed the music for) and Gailard Sartain. (And these are not star cameos either, they are fully integrated as part of an ensemble cast). Jenny Littleton’s part as the bimbo is rather funny – when she gets to play the bimbo being stoned and gradually revealing her sensual side, you realise just what a funny performance she is giving. The only weak hand in the deck is star/co-writer Bruce Arntson who performance is so wild and whacked-out that it can only be described as bizarre. He gives the impression of a former rock star who has done too many acid trips.

Full film available here

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